My friend Dominique Baker recently shared this story with me. The basic summary is that removing physical relics of the Confederacy from shared public life removes any need for “us” to contend with the racism of “our” history.
A similar argument was made here at Vanderbilt University recently, amidst conversations about Confederate Memorial Hall as well as the Eliza Claybrooke Memorial Scholarship for daughters of Confederate soldiers at Peabody. Besides the argument that there are still people who hold the Confederacy close to their chest as a part of their identity, a similar argument was made that removing relics removes any responsibility “we” have to face “our” ugly history.
I think there is some valid thought here. This nation needs to contend with its violent and oppressive history. “We” can’t just wash away all memory of this history and just march forward for the sake of marching forward.
What I firmly reject about this argument, as is evident from my consistent use of scare quotes, is the idea that “we” all share this responsibility. Let us be clear for a moment: the “we” being discussed here is white people. This much is explicit in Regina Nippert’s article above, as she notes, “We white Southerners are a hot mess. That does not excuse us from the conversation we know we need to have.”
The problem I have with this argument is that it perfectly fits into existing structures of white supremacy. It privileges the needs of white people above the feelings of black people.
I do not attempt here to make the claim that all black people want the removal of Confederate symbols. To some extent, I expect there are probably some who would agree that white people should not be allowed any boulevard through which they can avoid facing history. My issue is not so much the decisions made as a result of this argument as much as it is the fairly uncritical way it has been presented by white people.
Racism isn’t just a part of our history. It exists in our current world, and based on observations from my experience as an activist, Confederate relics can and do contribute to feelings of disempowerment, invisibility, and fear among black people. Discussing preserving these relics in the name of helping white people grow without paying any mind, again, to the needs of black people isn’t a statement of progress.
Sure, it’s great when white people are able to contend with whiteness in a historical and contemporary context. But as I also mentioned in my discussion of white fragility, this exploration of whiteness can dangerously translate into continued ignorance of the needs of people of color.